Editor’s note: Like the other contributors to this symposium, Nancy D. Campbell celebrates the 40th anniversary of David F. Musto’s The American Disease by noting the book’s landmark status in her own intellectual journey. She is author of Using Women: Gender, Drug Policy and Social Justice (2000); Discovering Addiction: The Politics of Substance Abuse Research (2007); co-author with JP Olsen and Luke Walden of The Narcotic Farm: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Prison for Drug Addicts (2008); and co-author with Elizabeth Ettorre of Gendering Addiction: The Politics of Drug Treatment in a Neurochemical World (2011).
“We are, however, an impatient people.” Thus ended the Expanded Edition of The American Disease, which opened my eyes to the underlying history of the War on Drugs that was unfolding in the late 1980s. Musing about returning to graduate school from a vantage point high in the Coast Range in Mendocino County, California, I was riveted by the contradictions of the historical moment. On rare occasions when there was network reception at my remote outpost, the War on Drugs appeared to target pregnant, African-American women using crack-cocaine. Yet in the Emerald Triangle realities, there was paramilitary action against pot-growers. What was the War on Drugs, I wondered, if it meant so many things to so many people?
Scales fell from my eyes as I read The American Disease. So this was what historians did! They enabled ordinary people to make sense of the contradictions they inhabit. This was what drug policy was about—cycles of alternating tolerance and intolerance, fear and loathing, learning and unlearning. Through David Musto’s book, I thought I understood what all this demonization and marginalization was about. What more was there to say? Little did I foresee a career spent reading between the lines of a book that came out when I was 10 years old, announcing to my father’s med-school buddies that I would grow up to write a “history of the pill in America.”